Reprinted with permission from the February 2018 issue of Gospel AdvocateMagazine.
Hebrews affirms, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12 ESV). This is part of a warning in Hebrews, which affirms that Christians who defect from God will fail to meet their rest as their Israelite counterparts did (vv. 1-11). God holds his people —and His creation— accountable by His presence (“sight”) in the word of God (Hebrews 4:13). This is a raw incontrovertible truth.
This passage makes no caveats; it makes no attempt to remedy a distinction between God’s word and God’s presence. They are both manifested at the same time. God is involved with real life (time and space) with Israel and with Christians. God makes promises and keeps his word regarding their “rest,” and God holds His people and creation accountable to His word. God is Lord of heaven and earth and everything in between, and He holds it together by the power residing in Jesus (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). The word of God is connected not only to the authority of God but also to His nature and how He reveals Himself to the world.
Let me say the above in a differently. Our God, who is beyond time and space (God’s transcendence), enters our earthly “realm” bound by time and space (God’s immanence) with His divinity and authority (sovereignty) intact; furthermore, God enters into relationship with His creation (Abraham, Israel, Christians) by revealing Himself in creation and in His word. God is active both in creation and in His word. Creation reveals God’s existence and hints at elements of His attributes (natural theology), but it is His word that reveals God and His “will” so that humanity can enter into covenant with God. The word of God was both proclaimed orally through particular spokesmen (patriarchs, prophets, kings, apostles), but the prophetic word was not only through oracles but also in written communiqués embedded with the same divine authority (2 Peter 1:16–21). These writings reveal the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:11–16), His purposes and mystery (Ephesians 3:1–6), His involvement in human events (Acts 17:26–27), and the righteousness by which He will bring justice to the world (Acts 17:30–31).
To say it bluntly, the Bible is the word of God set in a permanent written form. Paul declared, “all scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Scripture bears the character of God and is no “dead” codebook, for it transforms every “man of God” into a competent, equipped servant (2 Timothy 3:17). The profitability ofall Scripture is due to its quality as “God’s breath.” There is no pecking order between the spoken or written word of God. The inspired written word is as inerrant as God’s character. There is no source outside of the Holy Spirit-given Scripture that speaks God’s transforming work since it is the depository of the gospel’s message. What the word of God promises, God will do; what God proclaims, God’s holds His creation accountable to (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The above may seem to belabor the point, but as anticipated by the title of this piece, we will sketch how the word of God is handled among Liberal (Modern) and Neoorthodox influences. It is essential for the church to reflect on these twentieth-century influences because dialogue is healthy, truth has nothing from which to hide, and any redefinition of biblical Christianity must be given due consideration (Galatians 1:6-7).
The following historical sketches will probably not satisfy everyone, but they will be enough to see their direction and how they redefine significant elements of historic Christian beliefs and their tendency to subvert scriptural authority.
The word “liberal” is a very loaded word. It is often used with contempt to show disapproval of someone else thought to be progressive (instrumental music, expanded role of women, etc.). But this is not the historic sense of the word. Liberalism emerged in the late nineteenth century through the interplay of many players, thinkers, and philosophical trends. The influence of Liberalism, or Modernism, is seen in three levels: (1) revelation is not the final answer to reality, (2) naturalism is the key to reality and religion, and (3) since the Christian documents are built on ancient myths and superstitions, the historic supernatural claims of Christianity is immaterial. To be a “Christian” is a matter of experience and the “essence” of its teaching.
Liberalism, as an intellectual revolution, is a child of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment). The “Age” saw the elevation of human reason over the institutional “church,” which wielded divine revelation. It was “the church” that dictated to the people what to believe about reality. Divine revelation was the final answer to determining truth and what really happened in the past. This was displaced with rationalism, scientific history (criticism), and naturalism as final answers to genuine and authentic history and truth. In essence, as Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen point out, the maxim “I believe in order that I may understand” was turned to “I believe what I can understand.” Faith was overturned by a reason informed by modern findings — thus, this point of view is called “Modernism.”
Everything that was received as genuine knowledge, now, was shaped by the natural world. This was further supported by what is called “the principle of analogy,” popularized by the liberal theologian Ernst Troelsch (1865–1923), which argued that the present is the best way to understand the past. The consequence was detrimental in the extreme on the trustworthiness of Scripture. The supernatural elements interwoven in Scripture are, by definition, myths and superstitions. This meant that there are no miracles, no supernatural interventions by God, and no resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, many new schools of “criticism” emerged to study Scripture with mixed results.
This naturally led to an embrace of “the essence of Christianity” so long as reason and experience allowed. “Liberals” are open to the modern findings from the natural world, open to a religious humanism and science —in particularly embracing Darwinian evolution as the process by which God created. If God exists, He could only be revealed through religious “experience.” It was also immaterial if the events of Scripture happened or not because religion is a condition of the heart. Yet, the apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that if the resurrection event has not occurred, both our preaching and faith are in vain and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17).
Another arm of Liberalism is the demythologizing of the New Testament pioneered by the “Form Critic” Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Bultmann argued that historic person of Jesus is built on untrustworthy sources. The New Testament is Christian propaganda shrouded in the imagery of the Greek myths and Roman legends. As such, they are not relevant for faith nor spiritual truth claims. It is the symbolism that matters. Today, one only need to watch the latest “history” programming to find modern theological liberals interviewed. Theological liberalism has significant questions that need to be answered, but it brings Christianity to a logical dead end.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) ignited a movement when he published his commentary on Romans in 1919. It charted a new theological direction away from Liberalism/Modernism. Barth (pronounced “bart”) was not fond of the misnomer “neoorthodoxy,” but his strand of thinking regarding the meaning of “revelation” and “the word of God” would rival the prevailing traditional belief held historically by the church. As a consequence, many regard Barth as one of the great theologians and the father of modern theology.
Orthodoxy affirms the teaching of historic Christian truth based on Scripture. This includes, for example, the following concepts: the inerrant inspiration of scripture, the triune Godhead, the deity and virgin birth of Christ, the historic creation and fall of humanity, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ, the return and final judgment. Barth argued, on the other hand, that “revealed truth” was not written, but was the outcome of an encounter (an experience) with God. Thus, instead of scripture as being the objective word of God, Barth argued for a subjective experience with God initiated by reading the Bible.
Barth was offering a completely different course of thought altogether. “Revelation” does not appear in the form of propositional truths. Arguing book, chapter, verse, or appeals to the very words of scripture is insufficient to reveal God. Revelation (the word of God), it is argued, is an “event” in which God acts in history (God’s immanence). Barth even argued that revelation is not found in natural theology (Acts 17; Psalm 19; Romans 1) but, instead, in events like the call of Abraham, the exodus, and the resurrection. Millard Erickson is spot on when he classifies Neoorthodoxy as an illumination theory divorced from an objective standard.
Although Neoorthodoxy is not a unified movement, there are three interconnected witnesses (modes/forms) that shape its view on revelation. First, Jesus is the word of God in the truest sense, for He reveals God in the event of His incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. This is true revelation, the very gospel. Second, Scripture points to Jesus but it is a flawed human (read “errant”) attempt to provide a witness to divine revelation. It is instrumentally God’s word but not properly. Third, the proclamation within the faith community —Barth preferred “community” to church— is likewise instrumentally God’s word. The Bible, then, only becomes God’s word when God uses it to reveal Jesus Christ in the encounter, contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16.
In fact, Neo-orthodoxy is quite a popular approach to handling the Word of God, even among churches of Christ. A popular theological branch of this movement is “Canonical Criticism,” popularized by the late American scholar Brevard Childs (1923–2007). It seeks to broadly bypass much of the liberal destructive criticism of the twentieth century by accepting the texts of Scripture as literary units. Nevertheless, this point view struggles, as did Barth’s, to embrace the Bible as a very human (errant) book while appealing to its authority for theological thought as if they were inerrant. They seek, in the words of one sympathetic professor, to “articulate a doctrine of Scripture that recognizes human flaws in it.” Treating the Bible as an inerrant text is simply a form of bibliolatry.
Keeping the Faith
Today, the phrase “Word of God” means different things to different believers, and that includes preachers. Liberalism ultimately rejects a supernatural Christian faith, and is at home with amputating its historic claims of a resurrected ascended Lord Jesus, in exchange for a subjective diluted Christianity. Neoorthodoxy, on the other hand, embraces a supernatural Christian faith, but it rejects the supernatural origin, inerrancy, and authority of the Scriptures which undergird its claims. The Word of God has always been a manifestation of God’s presence in our lives, in His proclamation, and in His Scripture without pecking order. Let us join Paul who declares, “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Romans 3:4).
Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 17.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 220–21.
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. G. Foley (New York: Holt, 1963), 26–36.
The book of Proverbs was the first book of the Bible that I read as a new Christian in 1996. It called my attention and spoke to me with wisdom that I did not have. It literally saved my life. I come from a street gang background, and after leaving it behind for Christ I would receive invitations and phone calls to “go out” with friends still living the life I had abandoned. The hard part was that I cared for my friends but I knew that the life they were living was dangerous. On one occasion, after reading Proverbs, I denied an invitation to go out. My friend asked, “Why?” I said, “Let me read you something.” I read to him Proverbs 1:1-33verbatim from the American Standard Version. He did not like what he heard, but he understood. It would almost be a decade later when I would have a safe outing with my old friends. In that moment, though, Proverbs spoke for me with the wisdom I did not have at the time, the words of wisdom which promise life when followed, and warnings of calamity when not.
On face value, Proverbs promises to all those who would read and apply its words of protection from calamity. The first verses invite people to learn wisdom. It calls out with the words, “To know wisdom… to discern the words… to receive instruction… to give prudence… knowledge and discretion” (1:2-4 ASV). These synonymously paralleled ideas highlight the strength, beauty, and power of this book. I am indebted to Proverbs for giving me the words and a plan of action for speaking to my friend when I was very tempted to say yes and go out with him and others. It cannot be overstated that this paper on Proverbs is not a mere academic exercise in biblical hermeneutics and interpretive methods, and their bearing on Hebrew Poetry and Wisdom Literature. I do not believe that an academic judicious study of the Scriptures must ignore or be disinterested in practical engagement of the same. The wisdom psalm says our “delight” must be “in the law of the Lord” wherein we should meditate upon it “day and night” and, as a consequence, our actions bear its fruit (Psa 1:2-3 ESV).
The present paper focuses, though, upon the contents of Proverbs 1-9 and the methodology within this section to teach wisdom. The impetus for this paper is the intriguing use of two women (Lady Wisdom, Dame/Madam Folly) dueling for the attention of a “lover/spouse” (the reader), the use of a father-figure addressing his son as to the importance of selecting a companion from one of these women, and how this motif and strategy is used to teach wisdom —presumably from God. This paper will contextualize Proverbs 1-9 in order to properly understand its literary features (genre), structure (the instruction speeches), and strategies (how it teaches wisdom); so that, trajectories may be suggested for personal spiritual growth in wisdom. The home and the church needs more wise people active in this world.
Consider first the cautionary words of Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman, III:
We will surely distort God’s message to us if we read the Old Testament as if it had been written yesterday. We will surely misapply it to our lives and the communities in which we live if we don’t take into account the discontinuity between the Israelites… and us Christians living at the beginning of the third millennium.
In an attempt to reduce these potential gaps, this paper will have two movements. First, Proverbs will be considered as a work of Hebrew Poetry set within the international context of Wisdom Literature. Second, the strength of interpreting Proverbs 1-9 as a significant collection within the anthology of the whole book will be examined. Finally, some conclusions will be drawn.
1. Contextualizing the Genre of Proverbs
Proverbs is a work of Hebrew Poetry set within an ancient international context of Wisdom Literature. Proverbs must be read in light of the stylistic poetic methods of the ancient Hebrews rather than in the light of modern literary expectations. Karen Jobes reminds that the “unfamiliarity of ancient literary genres found in the Bible is undoubtedly a stumbling block to interpretation — and has been throughout the history of the church.” Due to the antiquity and foreignness of the Hebrew Bible, it is important to bridge this interpretive gap by understanding the form through which God communicates His Word. To even begin to understand Hebrew poetry the Bible student must enter into “the image world of the poet” derived from “the ancient biblical culture” which is most likely quite different from the present modern (or post-modern) era today. To lament with Samuel Sandmel, outside of allusions to David, Solomon, “certain ‘guilds,’” and the mentions of Asaph and the sons of Korah in the superscriptions of the Psalms, “Scripture tells us virtually nothing about the poets.” Nevertheless, the legacy of their poetry suggests that they were wordsmiths and craftsmen leveraged by the Spirit of God to communicate His Word in poetic form.
Poetry —ancient Near Eastern (ANE) or modern— is quite a different literary creature than narratives and civic codifications. To appreciate poetry and non-prosaic literature, it must be approached “with our imaginations sharpened, our rhythmic senses ready to carry us along the swells and recesses.” In others words, a poetic frame of mind must be at the ready if there will be any enjoyment or profit when reading poetic sections and books of the Bible. Why? Because poetry is crafted to convey truth by means of emotion and imagery; the imagery is not to be pressed for its literalness. This is critical because the Hebrew Bible particularly is comprised of many books and sections which are framed in poetry (verse or proverb). This is a core hermeneutical skill needed to interpret and understand a large section of the Hebrew Bible, of which only Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra-Esther, Haggai and Malachi have no poetic sections. Ultimately, poetry is regarded as the second most prevalent form of literature in either testament.
Proverbs must be set within the international context of Wisdom Literature for this is the background of its poetic forms. This is not comfortable for some Bible students; however, when the biblical writings are set within their historical context, it becomes observable that biblical writers use the literary genres and conventions of their day and international heritage. This is true as for the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. For example, the Greco-Roman world was a letter writing community and its capacity to send information through a letter as a surrogate for a personal visit was powerfully used by the apostles and Christian prophets. This utilitarian means led to the dominance of the epistolary genre of the New Testament. Likewise, it is clear that the form and function of Proverbs that its poetic nature is tied to an internationally known literary genre which centers upon teaching wisdom. It is not the form that makes them unique, it is the revelation they bear from God which set Israel’s Wisdom Literature apart from its international counterparts (2 Tim 3:16).
Consequently, while the context of God’s relationship with Israel may satisfy many interpreters of Proverbs for understanding the formation of the wisdom genre, it is probably better to understand Israel’s Wisdom Literature within the “contemporary” international context of the ANE. Merrill F. Unger offers, however, a valuable caution. Unger stresses a value for the contributions of scholarship from a variety of disciplines external to the text of Scripture (archaeology, ethnology, history, etc.), provided such disciplines are “purged of the leaven of unbelief and the unhappy results of a professed scientific but invalid method of approach that reposes [i.e., sets, lies] authority in unaided human reason.” The concern is a valid one, but this conviction must not breed a fear which hinders properly contextualizing the Old Testament (cf. Longman).
International Wisdom Literature
With this said, Kenton L. Sparks, John H. Walton, and William W. Hallo have cataloged a vast array of documents and texts which make it clear that “wisdom was an international rather than strictly Israelite/Jewish phenomenon.” These wisdom texts are spread across three broad ancient international regions and “states”: Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the West Semitic and Hittite. The existence of Wisdom Literature external to biblical sources goes back to the third millennium BC. In Mesopotamia, wisdom is identified in such texts as the Sumerian Proverbs, the Instruction of Shuruppak, the Instruction of Urninurta, the Counsels of Wisdom, and the Advice to a Prince. In Egypt, “Instruction” texts such as the following share a striking literary correspondence with Proverbs: Instruction of Ptahhotep, Instruction of Merikare, and Instruction of Any and Instruction of Amenemope. In the third group, the Aramaic Proverbs of Ahiqar bears similarities with the numerical sayings of Proverbs (6:16-19).
Consider a few conclusion drawn by Old Testament scholars regarding these extra-biblical international sources of Wisdom Literature. First, Walton demonstrates (following Kitchen) that “a great deal of formal similarity exists between the Instruction of the ancient Near East and the book of Proverbs.” Thus, one cannot ignore this similarity. Second, Israel’s wisdom genre is a late-comer, however, when compared to the international community. Nevertheless, despite the existence of international Wisdom Literature which predates Israel’s, one should not confuse pre-existing genre and form as a subversive challenge to divine revelation. Third, many of these texts are generally framed between a father and a son, provide advice and counsel, and employ riddles and figurative language.
In the Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom (lines 81-84) a father speaks to his son:
//My son, if it be the wish of a ruler that you belong to him, //If you are entrusted with his closely guarded seal, //Open his treasure (and) enter it, //For no one but you may do it.
In the Instruction of Shuruppak (lines 31-34) there are sections reminiscent of the concern about proper conduct especially around a married woman (Prov 2:16-22, 5:1-23, 6:20-35, 7:1-27):
My son, do not commit robbery, do not cut yourself with an axe. //Do not act as the bridegroom’s friend in a wedding, do not … yourself. //Do not laugh with a girl who is married; the slander is strong. //My son, do not sit (alone) in a chamber with a woman who is married.
Fourth, the wisdom “Instructional sayings” texts emphasizing the passing on of instruction by imperatival phrases (“listen, my son”) find strong intertextual similarities with Proverbs 1-9, 22-24, and 30-31. For example, the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemopet shares common literary features with the prologue of Proverbs 1 and 22:17-24:22.
These findings stand in agreement with the biblical narrative which frames the international influence and fame of King Solomon’s wisdom (1 King 4:29-34). Solomon’s kingdom (ca. 960-922 BCE) is connected to the international community of the world. There are five elements to this passage which underscore the international stature of wisdom in Israel due to Solomon.
First, as a result of Solomon seeking wisdom and “an understanding mind to govern” Israel (1 King 3:9), God grants him “wisdom [hakmah] and understanding [tebuna] beyond measure” (4:29).
Second, the richness of his wisdom is as the “breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore” (4:29).
Third, Solomon’s hakmah is intentionally stated to have surpassed the pre-existing wisdom tradition of the east (Mesopotamia?) and Egypt (4:30).
Fourth, Solomon’s wisdom was regarded as exceptional at home among the men of Israel (4:31).
Fifth, Solomon’s wisdom had achieved international acclaim (4:31-43). Perhaps, the catalogue of Solomon’s 3,000 proverbial sayings and his 1,005 songs (masal) were appealing for their artistry and craftsmanship: “And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom” (4:43).
Furthermore, the mention of the Ezion-geber seaport and capable seamen in 1 Kings 9:26-28 and 2 Chronicles 8:17-18 provides insight into the international trade and military capacity of Israel during the reign of Solomon. The capacity to use the sea would extend Israel’s connection to other nations and implicitly suggests that here was to some degree the transference of cultural and religious ideas. The point is, Israel was connected.
Exploring the Purpose of Proverbs 1-9: Order and the Fear the Lord
What is the purpose the Wisdom Literature as revealed in Proverbs 1-9? A survey of scholarly sources can easily demonstrate the difficulty inherent in defining biblical wisdom. Some define wisdom, and ultimately the purpose of Wisdom Literature, from the point of view of a chase to obtain wisdom or to become wise. Dave Bland asserts that Wisdom Literature concerns itself with “how one gains wisdom” so that one may have ability and expertise to negotiate the difficulties of life (2:1-5). James G. Williams, describes wisdom as the ability to voice and apply perspective, “wisdom is dedicated to articulating a sense of order.” Williams goes on to define that “sense of order” through the lens of positive and negative retributive justice; which is it say, if you do x, then y follows — whether to reward you or to punish you. Furthermore, and what is inviting to Williams’ treatment of wisdom codified in proverbial sayings, is that the power of wisdom resides in its capacity to instill discipline and self-control (musar 1:1-7).
Indeed, Kevin J. Youngblood sustains and extends this thesis by arguing that “discipline” functions in four relational levels, all of which maintain the “cosmic boundaries” which protect wisdom’s order. They move from the proper order that should exist in the comprehensive first level of the cosmos as God orders it, the second level of the city with its cultural and political order, the third level being the family and household order, and finally the fourth level where self-discipline reflects the “individual expression” of the cosmic order. The foundation to this order of wisdom is spelled out in the prologue of Proverbs (see Youngblood’s figure below).
The language of wisdom from Proverbs 1:2-6 is distinctively summed up by the synonymously parallel concept of “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7a). Bruce Waltke calls this verse the essential “spiritual grammar for understanding” Proverbs and in effect wisdom. In agreement, if Bland and Williams may be synthesized, the pursuit to gain wisdom is to articulate and practice the treasury of human knowledge which provides the understanding and guideposts to live within the proper divinely sanctioned order of existence. In light of Proverbs 1:7a, then, the emerging wise person must begin with the primary source of earthly order, namely — the Lord. Roland Murphy believes this phrase enunciated the motto of the sages. It takes little to explain how this function of “fear” in the God of Israel is the only thing which aligns the emerging person with a right relationship with their surroundings.
In addition, when seeking a broader perspective on the notion of fearing the Lord, Kenneth T. Aitken calls attention to two elements of “the fear of the Lord” illustrated in the Hebrew Bible. First, there is “deep-seated reverence and awe,” and second, there is the commitment of the emerging wise person to be loyal and obedient to the Lord’s law. It was Moses who was afraid to look at God when He manifested at the burning bush (Exod 3:6), and it was Isaiah who spoke of regarding “the Lord of Hosts” as holy, your “fear” and “dread” (Isa 8:13). However, Proverbs use of “the fear of the Lord” is quite clear. The phrase is used in Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10. In the conclusion to the preamble of Proverbs (1:7), the emphasis is laid upon a promotion to begin practicing the essence of wisdom; later, Proverbs 9:10 functions as a warning to those who would be seduced by the way of folly, or as Whybray calls her Lady Stupidity. “Fear of the Lord” or “fear the Lord” is used as a shorthand (Waltke’s “spiritual grammar”) for the wisdom of obedience to God’s order (Prov 3:7; 14:2; 24:21; 28:14; 31:30). In these references for “fear the Lord,” one can observe in the juxtaposed tension found in the antithetic binary line the contours of what wisdom-obedience is and is not.
We may then conclude that “fear of the Lord” or “fear the Lord” is used as a shorthand (Waltke’s “spiritual grammar”) for obedience to God’s order as it connects down the one’s personal relationships (Prov 3:7; 14:2; 24:21; 28:14; 31:30). In these references for “fear the Lord,” one can observe how the contours of what “wisdom-obedience” is and is not by the tension created in the antithetic binary line.
2. Understanding the Structure of Proverbs 1-9
The strength of interpreting Proverbs 1-9 as a significant collection within the anthology of the whole book will be examined. The book of Proverbs may be outlined in three movements: (1) the preamble (1:1-7), (2) the Instructional Sayings (1:18-9:18), and (3) the Proverbial Sayings (10:1-31:31). An outline like this demonstrates the broad outlook of the book which is framed as a father encouraging his son to follow after wisdom. However, it is very clear from the headings staggered throughout Proverbs (1:1, 10:1, 22:17, 25:1, 30:1, 31:1), that the canonical form of this inspired book is the result of a purposeful editorial hand(s) marked by these collections. This anthological insight provides guideposts for knowing how to read the different parts of Proverbs. It is precisely due to this diversity of literary forms in Proverbs that forces Whybray to say, “there is little gained from attempting to read the book straight through without a break.” In the case of the two Solomonic headings (1:1, 10:1), it may be to acknowledge the change in literary form from Instructional discourse to two-line proverbs. These headings provide internal seams to distinguish between literary collections.
Unfortunately, the academic community is divided over the exact structure of Proverbs 1:8-9:18. Merrill F. Unger offers a common three-point outline: (1) the call of wisdom (1:1-33), (2) the rewards of wisdom (2:1-7:27), and (3) praise of divine wisdom (8:1-9:18). Yet, the outline is simplistic and does not take into account the prologue (1:1-7), nor the various individualized thematic Instructions given on the wayward woman throughout chapters 2-7. To be fair, Unger is providing an introductory outline, and yet his outline represents the problem of oversimplification.
Outlining the Structure of Proverbs 1-9
So while there is wide agreement that Proverbs 1-9 is framed in a series of lectures or Instructions, this is where the agreement ends. Some scholars organize Proverbs 1-9 along self-proclaimed traditional lines of fifteen discourses (Bullock, Archer). Meanwhile, other scholars carve out 10 instructional speeches with a varied number of interludes (Whybray, Bland, Crenshaw). However, Patrick W. Skehan takes his cue from Proverbs 9:1 advancing a seven speech (Instruction) model:
“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.”
For Skehan this is the best interpretive place to start, as the seven pillars of Wisdom personified are best explained in literary terms (a “literary edifice”). Chapters 1 and 8-9 function, according to Skehan, as the framework for the seven speeches of roughly 22 lines each within chapters 2-7. Despite some promising observations, Skehan’s forces every speech into this paradigm which runs him into trouble with Proverbs 6:1-19. His solution is to cut it out of his structure, labeling it as “intrusive.”
What is clear is that there is an intentionality in how Proverbs 1-9 was organized, but at this point, there is not total agreement among biblical scholars, who have similar and overlapping outlines. Furthermore, these smaller sections within chapters 1-9 do work together and provide the “hermeneutical guide to the interpretation of the rest of the book” (10:1-31:31). It is not held here that the value of the structure of chapters 1-9 falls because of the difficulty of outlining it; instead, the value of the structure is upheld if it accomplishes its intended goal: to instruct the simple to find wisdom through the fear of the Lord. The overlapping ideas and grammatical nuances which create structural tensions may, in fact, be another measure to provoke the interconnected nature of these Instructions.
The Personification of Wisdom and Folly
The theological contribution of chapters of the Instruction sayings 1-9 is found particularly in its personification of wisdom and folly. There is the pursuit of the proper order of things (Lady Wisdom) and the disruption of the proper order of things (Dame Folly, the Adulteress, etc.). Wisdom and Folly are personified throughout Proverbs 1-9: Folly (1:10-19, 4:14-17, 5:1, 7:1, 9:13-18) and Wisdom (1:20-33, 8:1-21, 9:1-6). The personification of wisdom and folly is particularly developed in Proverbs8:1-9:18, when the emerging wise person is called upon to make the final decision. The pageantry is over. Unlike Adam who woke up “clean slate” to Eve in the Garden, the emerging wise son must choose between two beauties. Will he choose Lady Wisdom or Dame Folly?
Bringing a mind ready for the imagery of poetry, recognizing this personification is critically important. Personification may be understood as when “an inanimate object or entity or an animal (or a god, or God) is spoken of as though it or he were a human person with human characteristics.” The power in such figures of speech, over against the clarity of literal speech, relies on its power to communicate with “richness, depth, and emotional impact.” Although it can be argued that such women may and do exist in real life, it can not be ignored that throughout the context of chapters 1-9 they function as figurative expressions to illustrate the object lesson of both wisdom and folly.
Personification plays another important role besides providing imagery. It is clear that even “the way” which an emerging wise person will go is personified by the home of either Wisdom or Folly. These all reflect one choice to follow God or to reject His counsel. In chapters 8-9, Wisdom’s origin is above the city, “the highest places in the town” (9:3); likewise, so is Folly situated in a seat “on the highest places of the town” (9:14). It is believed by some that this is a direct allusion to the ANE idea that only the god of that city would dwell in the highest locales. Derek Kidner illustrates from Canaanite practice the precedent to personify a deity from the pantheon with the principle which best represented their god or an attribute of their god (anger, war, love, etc.). Personifying God’s wisdom by a faithful honorable woman was then in keeping with literary strategy; likewise, personifying the opposition to God’s wisdom (idolatry? paganism?) by a distrusted dishonorable covenant breaking woman also fits. Thus, personification is more than mere imagery. It serves as a literary feature —a tool— procured by Israel from the international religious community, and incorporated it into their own wisdom speeches to epitomize God and the deceitful “competition.”
The Strategy’s Terminus
The first nine chapters of Proverbs creates a framework for understanding that seeking wisdom, and upholding how things ought to be, demonstrates the “fear of the Lord.” This “discipline” and “self-control” to choose wisdom functions then in relational ways. What the speeches in Proverbs 1-9 address is that our choices affect the order of things around us. In the four concentrated sections dealing with the adulteress or strange woman and the unfaithful wife(2:16-22; 5:1-23; 6:20-35; 7:1-27), wisdom is explained in terms of marital faithfulness, foolishness is explained in terms of the pitfalls of misplaced sexuality.
Again, Youngblood is correct when he observes that wisdom (for Youngblood “self-control”) “is a matter of submitting oneself to Yahweh’s governance as does all creation.” It begins with the self, then in the home, then the civic interactions, and then before God himself (see figure above). This transition is borne out by comparing Proverbs 3:19-20 and 24:3-4. The same wisdom that founded creation also builds our households; the same understanding by which the heavens are established also establishes our own home and life; by means of his knowledge creation functions, so to our family. The choice of the which woman to dine with and to be with, is a demonstration —a graduation of sorts— for the emerging wise person, for in that choice they have shown fear and discipline (or, vice and disorder), and are living in the order that ought to be (or, how it ought not to be).
Two outcomes result at this point. In the first place, the emerging wise person has chosen the direction of their life, which according to Proverbs 1-9 ought to be wisdom and fear of the Lord. In the second, this perspective will give the reader the proper guidance for understanding judiciously and applying the binary proverbs in the later collections of Proverbs. Proverbs 1-9, then, provides the context to understand the rest of the book.
3. Models for Teaching Wisdom
Let us consider some thoughts on how to articulate a model for teaching wisdom within the home and the church.
Wisdom-Training Must Begin in the Home
The motif of a father (and mother) speaking to their son is a significant reminder of the importance Scripture places on the home as the primary location for spiritual formation. The shema passage of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is not only the Law but also provides and demands parents and guardians to find appropriate ways to make faith the “air that the family breathes.”
Every parent should be willing to recognize the obvious truth that with the raising and caring for children comes a learning curve — a learning curve that seems to never straighten. Nevertheless, the task in the home is to connect the children to the divine order of wisdom which speaks to their behavior. In Malachi the prophet condemned Judah for their lack of faithfulness. And in this condemnation, the Lord clearly addresses His desire for “godly offspring” (Mal 2:15).
What is at stake is establishing early the human boundaries created by God for self-control and responsible involvement to be the creative force that establishes God’s order in the world. Furthermore, as Sandmel acknowledges,
a person can be trained in wisdom and, if by chance he does not himself become personally wise, he can at least absorb the wisdom in the book well enough to live prudently… to live without unnecessary risk.
Proverbs is useful for developing the emerging wise person because its counsel is “safe and reliable” and fosters the virtues of “thrift, hard work, foresight, and piety.”
It was through a home education in God’s sacred writings which provided the wisdom for Timothy to obtain the salvation which is in Christ (2 Tim 3:14-15). Fathers and mothers are called upon to raise up children (1 Tim 3:4, 5:14; Tit 2:4) and train them in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:1-4).
Everyday Choices are Spiritual Choices
In the use of personification in Proverbs 1-9, the spiritualization of everyday things can assist dramatically in demonstrating the consequences of wisdom and folly.
Wisdom, then, is different from learning, for an unschooled person may posses it, out of rich experience. On the other hand, there are people with rich experience to whom we would not attribute wisdom, for even that experience does not necessarily lead them to it.
What are the gods of this age? How might one describe drug addiction or sexual pornographic addictions, or greedy consumerism? It comes down to choices. If we could reframe our spiritual focus down to the kitchen table choices, the check book choices, the wandering feet choices, etc., then it is possible to illustrate with clarity the heart of the problem and not the symptom.
It is the rejection of a loving obedience to God’s order which enables a lack of self-control. If you lack self-control, then you may eventually be controlled by a vice you never learned to say no to. The wisdom of Proverbs 1-9 highlights the creative ways we may seek to instill wisdom one choice at a time. Too many times, we believe simply by knowing or quoting the Scripture it will be sufficient. This is unsatisfactory.
In the temptation of Jesus, his identity as the Christ was under attack (Matt 4:1-11). It was not simply that he was hungry, or a test of God, or a test of ruling the kingdoms of men that was at the heart of the temptation. Jesus’ identity was under attack. In each response, Jesus quotes Scripture, but it was his choice to abide by the wisdom of those passages that led his victory over Satan. There was an order that he respected, thus, as the practice of fasting often typified Jesus showed himself disciplined to the leading of God.
There is a great social need for discipline and the wisdom that provides the contours of discipline. Some seek to develop spiritual discipline in recovery programs, particularly those built upon the sermon on the mount. For all the stigma such recovery programs receive, they at least are addressing the matter of discipline head-on and are not ignoring or whitewashing the issue.
For those who face their hurts, hang-ups, and habits, everyday choices are spiritual choices of restructuring their world order based upon the “fear of the Lord.” We need to champion their cause rather than subvert them, or stigmatizing them. They know who has the antidote for their weaknesses. The real question is, “do we?”
The Church Needs Wise People
Third, James A. Sanders speaks to the need for the church to develop and “produce more ‘wisemen’ and fewer ‘prophets’ for the responsible guidance of the people of God.” For Sanders this would include the concern for the survival of God’s people. Wise people, as conceived in terms of Proverbs 1-9, scrutinize the power structure of any given situation, or the problem, and then work them out in realistic ways which honor their relationship with God. James 1:19-20 reads,
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Developing men and women to think in terms of the fear of the Lord, to choose faithful means to serve God, is what will reinforce the ideal Divine order. Paul clearly connects the church’s identity to the outflow of God’s wisdom and the order which it creates:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-10)
Thus, it will take a variety of means to develop members of the body of Christ. This must be primarily accomplished at the level of the local congregation. This will require developing mentoring relationships within the body of Christ. One has wisely said, “Academic training is not the only kind of training we should utilize, however. A young person can benefit from working with someone older, wiser, more experienced.” I fully concur. We must cultivate wisdom-seeking from within the church, this will aid us to be receptive to God’s lead (Eph 3:10-11; Luke 7:31-35).
Proverbs 1-9 stands as a powerful section of Wisdom Literature. It shows that God’s people can learn from others how to teach wisdom. It also reveals that wisdom is more than knowing what to do, but also doing so because of a godly “fear of the Lord.” God’s people can and must use all expedient methods to teach wisdom. As an inspired anthology, Proverbs 1-9 demonstrates a measure of creativity for teaching wisdom in the home, in the community, and in the church. Proverbs 1-9 provides guideposts for teaching wisdom and discipline in the home and the church, for living by the fear of the Lord creates God’s order.
American Standard Version of The Holy Bible (1885, 1901; repr., Fort Worth, TX: Star Bible, 1992).
Unless otherwise stated all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of The Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
Tremper Longman, III, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions (1998; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 22-23. Longman argues that there are four major causes for this interpretive distance, two of which are the antiquity (“vast space of time”) and foreignness (culture, civilization, images, and literary genres and forms) of the Hebrew Bible (19-22).
Karen Jobes, “Stumbling Block #1: Literary Genre: Missing Clues in the Text,” Bible Study Magazine 9.1 (Nov.-Dec. 2016), 25.
Jack P. Lewis, “The Nature of Hebrew Poetry,” in When We Hurt: Tragedy and Triumph in Job, ed. David L. Lipe (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardemen University, 2003), 187.
Samuel Sandmel, The Enjoyment of Scripture: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (1972; repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1981), 195.
Sandmel, Enjoyment of Scripture, 196.
A. Berkeley Mickelsen and Alvera M. Mickelsen, Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study the Bible, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 115.
Lewis, “Hebrew Poetry,” 185. This means that thirty-two books of the Hebrew Bible are composed either completely or in part (sections) as poetic literature (82%).
Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1984), 87.
Leland Ryken, “Bible as Literature,” in Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, eds. David S. Dockery, et al. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 56.
Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985), 13. “Examined within the full context of early Christian literature, the documents which came to constitute the NT canon are not, as a group, recognizably unique.” Cf., W. Hersey Davis, Greek Papyri of the First Century (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1933; repr., Chicago, IL: Ares, n.d.).
Merrill F. Unger, “Scientific Biblical Criticism and Exegesis,” Bsac 121 (1964): 64.
Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005), 56. John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (1989; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 169-97; William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture (New York: Brill, 1997); James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 205-26.
Robert D. Biggs, trans., “Counsels of Wisdom,” in The Ancient Near East, ed. James B. Pritchard (London: Princeton University, 1975), 2:147.
Bendt Alster, “Shuruppak,” COS 1.176.
Dave Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2002), 17.
Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 210-13.
Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 177; James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1997), 20-21.
Louis Goldberg, “hakmah,” TWOT 647a; Louis Goldberg, “tebuna,” TWOT 239b.
Harvey E. Finley, “The Book of Kings,” in Beacon Bible Commentary, ed. A. F. Harper, et al. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1965), 2:362. “The ancient Near East could claim a considerable deposit of wisdom (hokma) before Solomon’s time. This the Historian recognized.”
Are Ethan and Heman mentioned here the Ezrahites cited in the subtitles of Psalm 88 and 89?
Sandmel, Enjoyment of Scripture, 196. “Meter and parallelism suggest that these poets were craftsmen. One would need to conclude, too, that the people were receptive to the poems; some high status of the poet is certainly to be inferred from the epithet applied to David, that he was Israel’s sweet singer.”
The visit by the Queen of Sheba by camel and the seaport mentioned lend strongly in favor of a Solomonic kingdom that was an international player. Furthermore, add the centralized placement of Israel between Egypt in the southwest and Mesopotamia in the northeast. See Samuel J. Schultz, The Old Testament Speaks, 5th ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 141-53.
Bland, Proverbs, 12.
James G. Williams, “Proverbs and Ecclesiastes,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (1987; repr., Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University,1999), 263.
Williams, “Proverbs and Ecclesiastes,” 264-65. “Everything in traditional Wisdom, from its basic ideas to its literary forms, affirms order. What this means when the principle of retribution, the necessity of wise utterance, and the authority of the fathers are brought to bear on the individual is the imperative of discipline and self-control” (246).
Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 180-81.
Waltke, Proverbs, 180-81.
Roland Murphy, Proverbs (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1998), 5. Robert Alter marks this as a distinctive emphasis by Israel which is “not evident in analogous Wisdom texts in Egypt and Mesopotamia” (The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes [New York, NY: Norton & Co., 2010], 194).
Kenneth T. Aitken, Proverbs (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1986), 14-15.
R. N. Whybray, The Book of Proverbs (London: Cambridge at the University Press, 1972), 55.
Tremper Longman, III, “Poetic Books,” in The IVP Introduction to the Bible, ed. Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 104.
Thomas H. Olbricht, “The Making of Old Testament Books,” in The World and Literature of the Old Testament, ed. John T. Willis (1979; repr., Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University, 1984), 234.
Whybray, Proverbs, 12.
Olbricht, “Making of OT Books,” 233. Waltke labels 10:1a as a Janus verse linking the 1:1-9:18 collection and the 10:1b-22:16 collection (Proverbs, 447; cf. Murphy, Proverbs, 64).
Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman, III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 238.
Merrill F. Unger, Introductory Guide to the Old Testament (1951; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 372.
Patrick William Skehan, “The Seven Columns of Wisdom’s House in Proverbs 1-9,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 9.2 (April 1947): 190-98.
Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the OT, 239.
John C. L. Gibson, Language and Imagery in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 16-18.
Craig C. Broyles, “Interpreting the Old Testament,” in Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 37.
Dave Bland, Proverbs, 81.
Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the OT, 243.
Derek Kidner, An Introduction to Wisdom Literature: The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 38-43.
Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York, NY: Paulist, 1984), 480.
Youngblood, “Cosmic Boundaries,” 140.
Youngblood, “Cosmic Boundaries,” 147.
Youngblood, “Cosmic Boundaries,” 141.
Youngblood, “Cosmic Boundaries,” 149.
Sandmel, Enjoyment of Scripture, 210.
Sandmel, Enjoyment of Scripture, 210.
Sandmel, Enjoyment of Scripture, 208.
James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (1972; repr., Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976), 100.
Sanders, Torah and Canon, 101.
Stan Mitchell, Will Our Faith Have Children? Developing Leadership in the Church for the Next Generation (Henderson, TN: Hester, 2016), 10.
Aitken, Kenneth T. Proverbs. Daily Study Bible Series. Old Testament. Edited by John C. L. Gibson. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1986.
Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: Norton & Co., 2010.
Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Revised and expanded edition. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1994.
Bland, Dave. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs. College Press NIV Commentary. Edited by Terry Briley and Paul Kissling. Joplin, MO: College Press, 2002.
Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York, NY: Paulist, 1984.
Broyles, Craig C. “Interpreting the Old Testament: Principles and Steps.” Pages 13-62 in Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis. Edited by Craig C. Broyles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
Bullock C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books. Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1988.
Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Revised and Enlarged. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998.
Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman, III. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All its Worth. 3rd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.
Finley, Harvey E. “The Book of Kings.” Pages 337-507 in vol. 2 of the Beacon Bible Commentary. Edited by A. F. Harper, et al. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1965.
Gibson, John C. L. Language and Imagery in the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998.
Guthrie, George H., and David Howard. “Reading Psalms and Proverbs.” Pages 111-30 in Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word. Nashville, TN: B&H, 2011.
Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger. Editors. The Context of Scripture. 3 vol. New York: Brill, 1997.
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Jobes, Karen. “Stumbling Block #1: Literary Genre: Missing Clues in the Text.” Bible Study Magazine 9.1 (Nov.-Dec. 2016): 24-25.
Lewis, Jack P. “The Nature of Hebrew Poetry.” Pages 185-93 in When We Hurt: Tragedy and Triumph in Job. Edited by David L. Lipe. Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2003.
Longman, Tremper, III. Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions. 3 Crucial Questions Series. Edited by Grant R. Osborne and Richard J. Jones, Jr. 1998. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.
Longman, Tremper, III. “Poetic Books.” Pages 95-113 in The IVP Introduction to the Bible. Edited by Philip S. Johnston. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Mickelsen, A. Berkeley, and Alvera M. Mickelsen. Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study the Bible. Revised edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992.
Miller, Clyde M. “Interpreting Poetic Literature in the Bible.” Pages 158-67 in Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice: Studies in Honor of Jack Pearl Lewis. Edited by F. Furman Kearley, Edward P. Myers, and Timothy D. Hadley. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986.
Murphy, Roland E. Proverbs. Word Biblical Commentary 22. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker. Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1998.
Paterson, John. The Book that is Alive: Studies in Old Testament Life and Thought as set Forth by the Hebrew Sages. New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1954.
Pritchard, James B. Editor. The Ancient Near East. Vol. 2. London: Princeton University, 1975.
Ryken, Leland. “Bible as Literature.” Pages 55-72 in Foundations for Biblical Interpretation: A Complete Library of Tools and Resources. Edited by David S. Dockery, Kenneth A. Mathews, and Robert B. Sloan. Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994.
Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984.
Sanders, James A. Torah and Canon. 1972. Repr., Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1976.
Sandmel, Samuel. The Enjoyment of Scripture: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 1972. Repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Schultz, Samuel J. The Old Testament Speaks: A Complete Survey of Old Testament History and Literature. 5th edition. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
Skehan, Patrick William. “The Seven Columns of Wisdom’s House in Proverbs 1-9.” CBQ 9.2 (April 1947): 190-98.
Smith, James E. The Wisdom Literature and Psalms. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1997.
Sparks, Kenton L. Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005.
Unger, Merrill F. Introductory Guide to the Old Testament. 1951. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979.
Unger, Merrill F. “Scientific Biblical Criticism and Exegesis.” Bsac 121.481 (Jan.-March 1964): 58-65.
Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Edited by Robert L. Hubbard. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
Walton, John H. Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Library of Biblical Interpretation. 1989. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990.
Whybray, R. N. The Book of Proverbs. Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible. Edited by Peter A. Ackroyd, A. R. C. Leaney, and J. W. Packer. New York, NY: Cambridge at the University Press, 1972.
Williams, James G. “Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.” Pages 263-82 in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. 1987. Repr., Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999.
The prose section of the book of Job receives a variety of approaches, but the most consistent approach is to treat it as a separate folk-tale which existed independently than the present canonical form. This “campfire” tale, or this moral free legend, had grown sufficient credibility to take on a permanent form within a community. Then an unknown poet emerges who takes the folk-tale and formalizes it with a series of poetic discourses and creates an extended edition, the present form of the book of Job. As such, questions emerge as to the continuity between the prose sections (1:1-2:13; 42:7-17) and the poetic sections (3:1-42:6). This source critical approach makes an assumption that the book of Job is the result of significant editorial activity, suggesting that the book has undergone considerable layering and updating. Robert Fyall argues that such a possibility does not “in itself” deny divine inspiration but it only makes poor sense in Job’s connection to the biblical canon. As such, “the question of the relationship of the prologue (chs. 1-2) and the epilogue (42:10-17) to the poetic dialogue must be explored.”
Nevertheless, despite the reticence among some scholars to see a significant degree of continuity vital to understanding the tensions, themes, and argument of the present form of the book of Job, it is argued here that a proper understanding of Job does not rely upon the theoretical pre-canonical form of the two independent traditions. Instead, there is a “logical coherence” between the prologue, the poetic discourses, and the epilogue. It is argued here that the prose sections play an integral part to understanding the canonical form of the book of Job. The style and vocabulary purposely represents an ANE setting apart of Israelite religion in the tradition of the dramatic epic, and sets the wisdom and theodicy debate in a historical context like that of the Hebrew patriarchs (Abraham, Moses). The prose sections place a large emphasis upon the heavenly court which anchors the theology and drama of the poetic discourses.
The Integral Nature of the Prose Sections
First, the prose sections play an integral part to understanding the canonical form of the book of Job. In proportion to the bulk of the book this may seem to overstate the weight of the prose sections in Job. As Bernhard Anderson argues, “if we are to understand the viewpoint of the author of Job we must rely primarily on the poems rather than on the prologue and epilogue.” Nevertheless, Anderson concedes that the poems are only effective because they are “framed within the context of the folk story.” The book of Job is framed by “the life-situation that occasions the poetic meditations.” In general, the framework of narrative transitions are, as Robert Alter observes, an act of conscious narration “in order to reveal the imperative truth of God’s works in history.” The function of the prologue and the epilogue, then, is to bracket in the core discussion of Job and this is accomplished by setting the plot, the tensions, and the characters which will enter the fray of the poetic discourses in Job 3:1-42:6.
The limits of the prose sections of Job are substantially agreed upon. The usual limits of the prologue of Job are from 1:1-2:13. First, the prologue has natural and literary limits. A reading of the first chapters of Job lends its to a natural outline of a narrative that transitions to a series of discourses, but as James Patrick observes there are a series of “speech ascriptions” which provides a literary limit to the prologue in particular and the speech cycles in general (“Job opened his mouth… Job said”). This marks the closing limit of the prologue, which as “the frame-story of Job” will find its themes continued in the poetic body of the Jobine discourses (3:3-42:6).Second, the prologue, then, introduces the tension of the worthiness of God to be served, the sincerity of Job’s faith, the heavenly court and the “wager” (so Anderson), the earthly trials and suffering of a pious and prosperous patriarch, and the interaction among the heavenly realms (Yahweh, The Satan, Heavenly Court) and the earthly realm (skeptic wife, the three friends, Job the hurting) where the narrative will transition to the core discussions of the book.
The epilogue, on the other hand, is generally considered to begin in Job 42:7 and ends in 42:17. First, reading the closing chapters of Job, the transition from discourse (“I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”) to the actions agrees with the usual outline of Job. There are however literary markers to distinguish between 42:6 and 7. John Hartley’s observation gives a semantic starting point to the epilogue with words from the Lord in favor of Job reminiscent of 1:7, and concludes in verse 42:17. Although 42:7 may be viewed as a potential ascription by the narrator before a statement, it lacks the same verb phrase (וַיַּ֖עַן) used to introduce the Lord’s speeches (38:1, 40:1) and Job’s response (42:1). Second, the epilogue, then transitions from the repentance of Job and the demonstration of the wisdom of God and serves as a narrative of resolution. The epilogue the humility and restoration of Job, the tensions removed, and Yahweh honoring Job and dishonoring the three friends who “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
Robert H. Pfeiffer, however, nuances the prose sections (“prose folk tale”) by trimming the traditional prologue to 1:1-2:10 and the epilogue as 42:10b-17. Pfeiffer takes 2:11-13 as the introduction to the entire dialogue exchange; meanwhile, 42:7-10a as a part of the dialogue structure of Job. That there is an obvious shift between 2:10 to 2:11 and 42:10a to 42:10b in content is readily conceded. Pfeiffer’s discussion of the structure of Job demonstrates the quality of his imagination to reconstruct the literary development of the book, but it fails to appreciate these verses in the prose sections as transitions within the same narrative event respectively. It is here that a significant warning finds validity: “Dissecting the book of Job into its component parts actually may diminish one’s understanding of its message.” Instead, it is best to appreciate the “harmony and dissonance” between the prose and poetic discourses which force a critical rereading of the themes presented in Job. The prose sections then are a vital part for understanding Job.
The Genre and Hebrew of the Book of Job
Second, the genre and vocabulary of Job represents an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) setting apart of Israelite religion, set forth in the tradition of the dramatic epic, and sets then the discourses on the wisdom and theodicy in a historical context like that of the Hebrew patriarchs (Abraham, Moses). Epic literature centers upon episodes in the life of a known figure from history, conveying “didactic instruction concerning the gods and their relations with humanity.” This area of study which has some implications for the dating and setting of Job, an area which has as many dates as interpreters. Dates range from late pre-exilic, a period between Jeremiah and Isaiah, or anywhere from the eighth century to the fourth-century B.C.E. Nevertheless, another warning is called to the student of Job: “it is a mistake to infer the age of the writer from the circumstances of the hero of the book.”
The Genre. Craig Broyles reminds that “the Bible must be read literarily before it can be read literally. If we think of Scripture as light (cf. Psa 119:5), exegesis acts like a prism revealing its colors.” The style of the prologue and epilogue show marks of the dramatic narrative genre of the epic placed in the historical setting of reminiscent of the biblical patriarchs. Many scholars concede the point that Job defies specific genre classification (sui generis “self genre”), but on a macro-level it falls generally into the wisdom literature genre which has parallels in Babylon and Egypt. The prose sections, however, seem to have points of contact with the epic elements of Genesis and Ugaritic literature suggesting that the author was either influenced by preexistence literary genre of the epic, or by specific examples. In keeping with epic narratives in Genesis, Job is painted as a patriarch. His wealth is measured by his cattle and servants (1:3; 42:12), he is the head of his family in both paternal and religious aspects (1:5), and his life-span is comparable to known biblical patriarchs (42:16). Also, the Sabeans and the Chaldeans are in the land of Uz (1:15, 17). In general, then, the internal evidence portrays Job “as a Bedouin sheikh, living in the land of Uz, in northwest Arabia.” It is not clear that Job is directly connected to Hebrew family; aside his connection to Uz, which may imply he is an Edomite, not much can be said of his ethnicity. Most likely, Job is not an Israelite and probably predates the Abrahamic covenant.
The epic genre is further seen in the literary structure of the prose sections fit the literary type of epic, which are directed to an “audience” rather than “reading” public. Elements such as repetition and reiteration are symmetrically constructed throughout these sections following the “epic archetype.” These elements are seen in the celestial council (1:6-12, 2:1-7), in detailing the character of Job (1:1, 8, 22, 2:3, 10), and the three successive blows with “formulaic introduction” and “concluding refrain.” Also, the significant use of numbers within the prose sections (1:2, 42:13) is a Near Eastern literary feature, supported externally in Ugaritic epics. Furthermore, the mythology represented by the celestial beings in 1:6 and 1:21 also is a feature of epic drama. Such a concept of an assembly of celestial beings (“the assembly of the gods”) “are well attested,” according to Sarna, “in the Northwest Semitic literary sphere.” There is also the “prominence of women in epic literature” as seen in the daughters of Job. The naming of the daughters in contrast to the sons is inexplicable aside from its parallel use with Baal’s daughters over his seven named sons and other Ugaritic parallels. Moreover, in Mosaic law daughters receive an inheritance in the absence of sons (Num 27:8), Job’s daughters, however, receive theirs along with their brothers (42:15). This particular point details “quite a different social milieu” like that of Ugaritic epics. Internally, Job is placed in an ancient setting which may reflect the truth about his antiquity but may not have sufficient weight in its determining date.
The Vocabulary and Hebrew. Also, the vocabulary and type of Hebrew employed in the prose covers a significant amount of syntactical and semantic ground in the philological history of the Hebrew language and its connection to the Hebrew canon. Avi Hurvitz, however, disputes this assertion. In fact, he developed criteria to inform the Old Testament exegete whether the Hebrew volume under consideration is composed in Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), as opposed to Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH). After Hurvitz evaluates seven terms and phrases he concludes are LBH in the prologue and epilogue, argues that “in spite of his efforts to write pure classical Hebrew and to mark his story with ‘Patriarchal colouring’, [sic] the author of the Prose Tale could not avoid certain phrases which are unmistakably characteristic of post-exilic Hebrew, thus betraying his actual late date.”
Ian Young reassesses this study by the criterion Hurvitz developed. In order for there to be identifiable LBH the terms must meet the following: linguistic distribution, linguistic contrast, extra-biblical attestations, and accumulation of the evidence. Young’s own assessment of Hurvitz’s work was both negative and reaffirming. Young dismisses three of Hurvitz’s submissions and supplements three additional phrases as LBH. The total numbered tallied by Young is seven between these two scholars. Young questions whether or not this is sufficient accumulation to establish a LBH imprint on the prose sections of Job to warrant a late date for them and for the book as a whole. To put the matter into perspective, Young places literature known for its LBH with a 500 word sample in a comparative chart to find the astonishing finding that does not line up with post-exilic LBH core books; instead, it is situated low and close to Genesis. Young then concludes, “according to Hurvitz’s own criterion of accumulation, the Prose Tale of Job is not in LBH.”
This is not to say that this is evidence for an early date of the prose sections of Job. Instead, Young argues that LBH and EBH are overlapping styles of Hebrew, rather than EBH being a chronological precursor to LBH. “EBH and LBH would thus turn out to be two styles of post-exilic Hebrew.” Whether Young is correct regarding overlapping styles of Hebrew, it has not been established. It would not seem outside the realm of possibility; yet, in terms of a written language a developmental Hebrew from earlier to later seems legitimate along with the fact that oral developments tend to have their history, nuances, and trajectories. At this point, though Young’s suggestion is inviting, it may be best to accept that EBH and LBH are post-exilic writings styles as tentative until more information arises. As Derek Kidner observes in the face of the “inconclusiveness” of the linguistic evidence, “Happily, this open question is academic, in every sense of the word. This book is no prisoner of time.”
Little Did They Know: Elements of the Prologue and Epilogue
The prose sections place a large emphasis upon the heavenly court which anchors the theology and drama of the poetic discourses. This emphasis is seen in several aspects which arch over the thematic issues addressed in the poetic discourses of Job. This emphasis is more pertinent to the reader than it is to hero Job.
First, there is the setting of the heavenly court (1:6; 2:1). The heavenly court introduced in the prologue recalls to the reader that “there are powers in the universe other than God and that they exercise great influence on the course of events.” The heavenly court motif in Job echoes Canaanite mythology of a council of the gods, or, as Alter describes it, a “celestrial entourage” as in Psa 82:1 (1b “in the midst of the gods he holds judgment”). In the prologue, the heavenly court scene appears twice where a defense of Job’s honest fidelity to God is made to rebut “the Adversary” (“the Satan”); however, in the epilogue, it is the Lord who descends upon the early court apart from the entourage and heavenly Adversary and restore’s Job’s faith and standing.
Second, this leads to a discussion of the main characters of the prose sections which are uniquely bound to each other in Job; namely, the Lord (יְהוָ֑ה), Job, and the Satan (הַשָּׂטָ֖ן). The interaction between God and the Satan place a wager upon Job’s life that he is fully unaware of; in fact, Job is never told in epilogue. The heavenly court is the stage where the celestial adversary emerges, “the Satan” (1:6-9, 12; 2:1-4, 6-7). While it is thought by some that the articular “Satan” suggests a proper name, Alter argues that the use of the definite article (הַשָּׂטָ֖ן) “indicates a function, not a proper name.” Hartley also agrees, this use “functions as a title rather than as a personal name.” This adversary (“the Satan”), then, functions as a celestial prosecutor against Job in response to the Lord (יהוה) proposal that Job is a unique human specimen of spiritual fidelity. This brings two particular elements into play which arch over the discourse cycles.
The drama is set, on the one hand, when Job becomes the subject of a “wager” that has his genuine devotion to the Lord questioned. On the other hand, in the face of Job’s ignorance of the impending hard knocks which will challenge his faith, the Lord’s “justice is on the line and everything depends on the final verdict. God must act to vindicate not only Job but himself.” This places the burden of the outcome upon God rather than Job. The Satan accuses, in essence, that positive rewards yield religious/pious service; hence, is not the person of God but instead a combination of divine bribery and human egocentric desire for these rewards which had motivated Job’s fidelity. It appears that the ideology of retribution builds upon these metrics.
In the epilogue, this theme is returned to after the series of discourses and a showing of Job’s penitence but the adversary is nowhere to be seen; instead, the Lord reinforces the righteousness and faithfulness of Job. It is the friends who have been arguing for the form of retribution the Satan argues for in the prologue, and now that they have been approaching it from the opposite angle. Job is indeed suffering. So, is Job suffering for no reason? The friends argue it is a response (Job 3:23) to Job’s hidden wickedness, so in order to return the hedge of rewards the patriarch must repent (5:17-27). But appeasing God in a religious transaction (repentance, sacrifice, etc.), or by piety, is not a foolproof plan to escape the hardships of life. Job, then, is not convicted to repent but holds to his integrity (Job 27:4-6). In the epilogue, though Job is not truly the victor of the debates, the friends have not changed their words and maintain Satan’s argument. Hence, in the friends the Satan’s accusation is proven inadequate and a great offense to the relationship God actually maintains with humanity.
Third, there is a level of “dramatic irony” which is shaped in the prologue and hangs through the discourses and ultimately returns in the epilogue. One the one hand, Job is completely unaware of what is about to happen to him; whereas the reader is fully knowledgeable of the perils which have been agreed to which are now coming upon Job. Yet, despite this lack of information, Job senses that there is a divine court to plead his case when his faith comes under scrutiny and serious questions about God and justice. This, however, is his longing and a position he is ultimately led to since the court of his contemporaries is already quite hostile and prejudicial towards him due to their conventional wisdom based upon their retributive theology.
On the other hand, the narrator establishes the irony of the story and its theological questions by granting permission to the intended audience of Job. Job and the reader have completely different motivations as the discourses develop. Job’s questions emerge as seeking a better answer to his questions. The reader knows these are the wrong questions. For Job, the man, it is God who has hand picked Job (though this is true) to tear him down (this is not true). In fact, it is the Satan who has touched Job (though by God’s permission), to prove that humanity symbolized in Job will reject God faced with this unjust treatment (which Job refuses to do because of his own sense of integrity). It is Job who finds and exposes the inconsistencies of the conventional wisdom of retribution. In the midst of Job’s sense of indignity for his suffering as a senseless act of God, the reader knows the conversation is all wrong because God champions for Job.Job’s ignorance is the reader’s understanding of reality are carried from the prologue, hang during the poetic discussions, and returns in the epilogue.
It is Job’s ignorance which informs the reader’s understanding of reality. The world is not a tidy place, the good sometimes suffer despite being good, and the bad sometimes enjoy more good they do not “deserve.” The reader is carried along with this tension in mind from the prologue, as it hangs during the poetic discourse cycles, and returns in the epilogue only to be met with the knowledge that humanity does not have the depth of wisdom, the power of control, nor the skill to balance the wild and domesticated world. The epilogue benefits from Job’s confessions of his “smallness” in comparison to what he was critiquing (40:3-5) and that he spoke out of considerable ignorance (42:1-6). This is staggering since the reader supposes that in order to resolve the tension of the book, God would explain to Job why he is suffering. But that is not how the book ends. The resolution is found in the fact that instead of judgment upon Job and his friends for what they “deserve,” God forgives them all. This shows that God relates to humanity in terms of grace, but grace in a real world with hardships that are not always connected to, nor demonstrative of, their relationship with God.
Fourth, there is some foreshadowing in the prologue of the final verdict for Job reflected in the epilogue. In Job 1:22 and 2:10 the narrator demonstrates the fortitude of Job’s faithfulness to God in the face of tragedy. After the first challenge to Job’s genuine devotion to God, the narrator observes, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22); furthermore, after the second challenge, the narrator writes again, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). These foreshadows are realized when the Lord himself validates Job’s words, “or you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). It is not that Job is sinless, but that Job committed —albeit off and on — that God was not mechanical in his wrath as his friends had been arguing in their dialogues. This is the underlying argument of the three friends, asserting an unbalanced doctrine of retribution, a “doctrine of rewards and punishments that was widespread in the wisdom literature of antiquity.” In the shorthand, their view amounted to two principles: virtue is rewarded and sin is punished. The prologue reveals heaven’s sabotage of this doctrine with, as Clines observes, “a most shocking infringement.”
The poetic discourses did not center on the premise that “If you sin, then you will suffer,” instead the three friends “reversed the cause and effect to reach the belief that: If you suffer, then you have sinned.” This theological failure on the part of the three friends demonstrates that although they claimed to “understand the meaning of life in terms of this doctrine of retribution,” they lacked wisdom. In fact, they share the same problem as Job in that they are woefully ignorant of reality and are attempting to explain it with impoverished wisdom. This speaks to why Job laments his friends, “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2), and why, in the epilogue, the Lord rebukes them and asks Job to intercede on their behalf (Job 42:8-9).Although the doctrine of retribution does not feature in the prose section, nor are there the explicit answer to why humans suffer, the events in the prologue create a series of events which allow the book to “disabuse one common belief, the so-called doctrine of retribution.” In the end, the verdict on Job’s disparaged piety is seen in his response to the Lord in 42:5-6, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job’s piety is maintained and his wisdom is asserted for now he sees the Lord who provides at the cosmic level down to the human earthly level and acknowledges his relationship is based upon the charitable and gracious hand of God.
It has been said that Job is “the greatest monument of wisdom literature in the Old Testament.” Yet, for such an epithet Job requires a demanding reservoir of critical skills to grapple with its structured tensions. The prose sections of Job require tremendous skill and patience to evaluate their contribution. There is a “logical coherence” between the prologue, the poetic discourses, and the epilogue. The prose sections play an integral part in understanding the canonical form of the book of Job. The epic genre and vocabulary places the wisdom and theodicy debate in a historical context like that of the Hebrew patriarchs. Finally, they place a large emphasis upon the heavenly court which anchors the theology and drama of the poetic discourses.
The prologue is often considered the “oldest” element of Job, originally existing as a “simple folk tale” then forming the basis of the current story. See Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman, III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 202.
Robert S. Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 19.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 19.
This does not disregard the fact that there are a variety of serious critical questions which must be considered; however, since even the consensus view as to the pre-literary origin of the prose-discourse-prose format of Job is theoretical and limited, it seems best to treat Job in its canonical form.
Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 202.
Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986), 590.
Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 590. Irving F. Wood disagrees. Arguing from a source-critical point of view, the poetic discourses “displace the heart of the story” of Job found in the prologue and the epilogue. See his “Folk-Tales in Old Testament Narrative,” JBL 28.1 (1909): 39-40.
Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 590.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1981), 46.
Due to space and the complexity of the issues, the prose elements which attend to the introduction of Elihu (Job 32:1-5) and his discourses will not be discussed in this essay. Milo L. Chapman, “Job,” in vol. 3 of Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1967), 101. Chapman sees this section as “part of the prose introduction of Elihu’s speeches.” See also, Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, 665, and John E. Hartley, The Book of Job (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 429.
Unless otherwise stated all Scripture citations are from the English Standard Version of The Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
James E. Patrick, “The Fourfold Structure of Job: Variations on a Theme,” VT 55.2 (2005): 186. Patrick demonstrates the use of “regular speech ascriptions” throughout Job (4:1, 6:1, 8:1, 9:1, 11:1, 12:1, 15:1, 16:1, 18:1, 19:1, 20:1, 21:1, 22:1, 23:1, 25:1, etc).
Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 74.
These themes are principally found in the lengthy arguments made by The Satan against Job (1:9-11, 2:4-5).
There are some variations on the epilogue but in general this is how many outline the epilogue.
Hartley, The Book of Job, 539. “Whereas Yahweh has accused Job of darkening knowledge (38:2), his charge against the friends is much stronger. Job has been genuinely groping for the truth, but the friends have spoken falsely in their attempt to defend God.”
Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1941; repr., New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 660.
William S. LaSor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 474.
Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 590-91.
John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989), 46.
Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 593; Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 200.
Craig C. Broyles, “Interpreting the Old Testament,” in Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 28.
Fyall argues that “we cannot force the book into a straightjacket. The nature of the book is such that into one form can cover the variety of situations, emotions, questions, protests and characters that it introduces” (Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 23). Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 573; Walton places Job along side many ANE parallel wisdom texts in Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context, 169-87.
See LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 472. “Our prologue and epilogue contain a considerable amount of epic substratum and that our prose version would seem to be directly derived from an ancient epic of Job.” See Nahum M. Sarna, “Epic Substratum in the Prose of Job,” JBL 76.1 (March 1957): 15. Leland Ryken, however, does not list these prologues as examples of the epic in How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Academic Books, 1984), 78-81.
Young, “Is the Prose Tale of Job in Late Biblical Hebrew,” 608.
Young, “Is the Prose Tale of Job in Late Biblical Hebrew,” 621-26.
Young, “Is the Prose Tale of Job in Late Biblical Hebrew,” 626.
Young, “Is the Prose Tale of Job in Late Biblical Hebrew,” 626.
A. Jeffery, “Hebrew Language,” IBD 2:555-56.
Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 76. Indeed, Tremper Longman, III, argues that it best to remain “agnostic about the date of composition” because “fortunately the answer to this question does not bear on its interpretation,” “Poetic Books,” in The IVP Introduction to the Bible, ed. Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 98.
The following discussion follows the lead of Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 34-38.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 34.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 34.
Wayne Jackson, The Book of Job: Analyzed and Applied (Abilene, TX: Quality Publications, 1983), 20. He connects the goings of “the Satan” with 1 Pet 5:8 and argues for the Devil; in fact, Jackson opposes the view taken here that “the Satan” is a celestial member of the heavenly court describing it as “baseless.” Fyall likewise takes “the Satan” as the personal Devil (Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 36). Outside of Job, but within the Hebrew canon, the articular “the Satan” only appears in Zechariah (3:1-2). Both contexts are legal in setting which gives weight for a legal/courtroom Adversary – the prosecutor.
Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes — A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: Norton & Co., 2010), 12.
Hartley, The Book of Job, 71.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 35.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 35.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 37-38.
Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You, 38.
Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 595.
David J. A. Clines, “A Brief Explanation of Job 1-3,” in Sitting with Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1992), 250.
Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 209.
Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 595.
Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 209.
With so many “churches” in the religious world, people interested in visiting one are often sidelined by the inevitable question, “which church should I go to?” After all, there are as many “churches” as there are potential opinions on what a church should be like. But where should a person begin as they search for a church, should they simply jump out on a whim? Hardly.
Searching for a church should be a reverent endeavor, especially since in the New Testament the “church” is said to have been “purchased” by the very blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 20.28). Consequently, if the church was that important to Jesus and the Father, those seeking to “go to church” should realize this spiritual venture should not be taken lightly.
Where then might a person find the necessary perspective from which to begin this search? The relevant information is found in the New Testament documents, the documents which record the formative forces which began the church in the first place; moreover, the New Testament provides ample information about how people became members of the blood-bought church of Jesus, along with important church organizational references.
This piece is a primer, in a sense, on the nature of the church. There are many ways that this topic can be addressed. But, nevertheless, below are some relevant points to glean from the New Testament on the topic of the church of Christ (Rom. 16.16).
The “Church” in the New Testament Documents
In the New Testament, from the beginning to end, the thought and actual fact that the saved existed as a collective known as the “church” or body of Christ is clearly self-evident (Matt 16:18 and Eph 1:22, 23, 4:4; Acts 2:47). Consider a sample of the New Testament documents.
There are four accounts of the ministry of Jesus, they are called Gospels. The term “church” is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, particularly in chapters 16 and 18. In chapter 16, Jesus speaks of building His church – “my church” (16:18). He explains that death (Grk. hades – not hell, contra KJV) will be incapable of deterring his plans to bring His church into reality. In chapter 18, verses 15-17 describe the disciplinarian process regarding a Christian brother living in sin, and hence, needing private correction. The final stage is to bring the sin to the public forum by telling it to the church, with the intention that it can act as a loving measure of leverage to pressure the brother to quit the sinful practice. Thus, in Matthew Jesus speaks of his church in two ways: (1) that it will be built (Matt 16:18), and (2) as the ultimate forum for maintaining moral purity among God’s people (Matt 18:15-17).
The Acts of the Apostles is the inspired historical account of the church – albeit a history with a theological focus. It is most definitely a primary source for the church, and therefore a logical document to examine in order to find the biblical church. To save space, consider what we find in only the first half of Acts (Acts 1-12). We find it was “the church” that had become fearful after the Divine retribution against Ananias and Sapphira was administered by the Lord (Acts 5:11); the object of Saul of Tarsus’ brutal obsession was “the church” anywhere it assembled (Acts 8:1, 3; cf. Gal 1:13); it was “the church” at large in Samaria and Judea that enjoyed peace when the persecuting Saul became the believing Paul (Acts 9.31).
We find Barnabas and Paul (Saul) laboring in “the church,” particularly in Antioch of Syria, and labeling the disciples (i.e. the individual members of the church) Christians (Acts 11:22, 26); several members of “the church” suffered persecution under the hand of King Herod (Acts 12:1, 5); “the church” in Antioch of Pisidia had prophets and inspired teachers, and sent Paul and Barnabas out to accomplish their first missionary call (Acts 13:1ff.); Paul and Barnabas had appointed elders in every “church” they established on their missionary labors (Acts 14:23), and upon their return to Antioch they recounted they travel to “the church” (Acts 14:27).
The largest sub-category of the New Testament documents is The Letter (also commonly styled, “epistle”) – 21 letters to be exact. They are further divided by the prophets which God employed to pen them: Paul (13 letters), John (3), Peter (2), James (1), Jude (1), and the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a vast amount of literature to scan, but we can reflect on the following citations of “the church” among the letters and observe that “the church” is the redeemed body of Jesus believers. It goes without saying – at least it should be by students – that the New Testament Letters assume their audience is the redeemed body of Jesus disciples.
Ancient letter writing etiquette had the author’s name first and then the recipient’s name; thus, we read, “from me… to you.” When Paul wrote his letters, he often addressed the recipients with the nomenclature “saints” (cf. Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2). The term “saint” is the general description of all members of “the church” in the respect that they have been sanctified in baptism, and this sanctification continues in obedience shown by a holy life (Matt 26:28; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 6:11-13; 1 John 1:6-7). The “saints” are members of the church viewed from the perspective of consecration. In fact, many times the letters begin like this: to the church with the saints.
Some appear to use Jewish terminology, like James and Peter, to describe the people of God. The letter of James is written to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1); meanwhile, the audience for the Letters of Peter (if to the same audience) is depicted in the following way: “To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1). However, in Peter’s second letter, he speaks of his audience as “those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). It seems like the language applies the covenant aspect that biblical Israel had with God, and here it is applied in a new way to demonstrate that Peter’s audience is the new covenant people of God (Jer 31:31; Heb 8:13). These are members of the biblical church.
The Letter of Jude addresses his recipients with the nomenclature “called” and “beloved” (vs. 1). Their calling seems from the simple fact that they received their invitation (a clearer meaning of the term, kleitos translated “called”) to share the “common salvation”. Moreover, they received access to the love of God actuated in the redemption of their soul accomplished through Jesus Christ, thus, they are the beloved of God. What Jude emphasized that their identity was related to their Divine relationship through obedience to the Gospel. For our purposes, we are to understand that these “saints” and “beloved” ones are members of the New Testament church.
The First Letter of John, much like Hebrews, does not begin in the traditional letter format. Some describe them as tractates or some larger form of literary work sent as a letter. Nevertheless, John assumes a relationship – a fellowship between the apostolic circle, God, and themselves – that is based on obedient living and faithful confession of sin as they strive to live a disciplined life (1 John 1:1-10). They already are in this relationship, they are saved. Again, in Hebrews 2:1-4, the evidence is provided regarding the recipients. They are encouraged to remain vigilant, not neglecting their salvation which was shown to have a supernatural origin. Likewise, these recipients are members of the biblical church.
The last document in the New Testament is the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. The document opens up with these words: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4). In the doxology, it is Jesus “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev 1:5-6). The audience, the churches, share salvation and the love of God, are part of a kingdom, and share involvement in the priesthood of God. The message of Revelation is the victory over the enemies of God as it is revealed in the inability of these satanic forces to prevent the faithful saints from entering the New Jerusalem, wherein lies the tree of life (Rev. 22.14). The brief but spiritually dense letters sent to the churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 show among other things, the audience intended for the prophecies embedded into the fabric of this symbolic book. They assume that the recipients are already Christians, members of the church.
The picture should be clear that the New Testament is a collection of 27 books which speak to or about the church of Jesus Christ. Consequently, anyone looking for a church should reverently approach the prospect with the New Testament as the guiding source for determining what the church that God established should look like and be like.
The Church: A Brief Word Analysis
We may survey some of the information from the New Testament regarding the “church” and the redeemed which make up the “church”, but what does “church” mean? The term “church” is the most common, though unclear, translation for the New Testament Greek term ekklesia. Often times, “church” is thought of as solely “the building” in which a person congregates with others to worship God; however, ekklesia does not refer to a building – hence, “church” is an unclear translation if not misleading altogether. But the term is so commonplace that it need not be shelved; after all, even modern dictionaries have various nuances for the word “church.”
The English word “church” has a peculiar history that demands some attention. Hugo McCord (1911-2004) – professor, translator, and preacher – briefly summarizes the history of the word:
Historically, the English word “church” comes from the Middle English “cherche” or “chirche,” which is from the Anglo-Saxon “circe” or “cyrce,” which is from the German “Kirche,” which is from the Greek kuriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” Webster says that the Greek word doma, “house,” has to be added to kuriakos to make the word “church,” that is, a “church” is “the Lord’s house.”
McCord further observes that only twice does kuriakos – “the Lord’s” – appear in the New Testament (“the Lord’s supper” 1 Cor. 11.20; “the Lord’s day” Rev. 1.10), but in neither case is the phrase “the Lord’s house” ever employed.
Basically, the etymology of the word translated “church” (ekklesia) derives itself from the adjoining of two words, ek and kaleo (ek-kaleo “call out”), into one verb originally “used for the summons to an army to assemble.” As a noun, ekklesia, denoted “the popular assembly of the full citizens of the polis, or Greek city state” (cf. Acts 19:32, 41). This is, in a nutshell, the Greek background of the word beneath our religious word “church.”
Its existence in the Old Testament is due to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), ekklesia appears about one hundred times and is frequently employed to translate the Hebrew term qahal. It is not so much the frequency to translate qahal which is intriguing; instead, it is the regularity of the context when ekklesia is employed which should attract contemplation. O’Brien writes:
Of particular significance are those instances of ekklesia (rendering qahal) which denote the congregation of Israel when it assembled to hear the Word of God on Mt. Sinai, or later on Mt. Zion where all Israel was required to assemble three times a year.
Interestingly, the Hebrew writer similarly speaks of the redeemed in Hebrews 12:22-24. Thus, a raw translation of ekklesia may suggest the meaning to be, “the called out ones.” In the biblical tradition, however, it seems better to emphasize that it carries the spiritual depiction of an assembly of God’s people prepared to hear and be led by His word in the covenantal sense.
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, recounts how Israel was an ekklesia during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness due to their rebellion and lack of faith (Acts 7:38). And it was during this time that they were taught how to depend upon the Lord. The beautiful and yet tragic relationship between the faithful God and his unbelieving nation is set forth clearly in Psalm 78 (cf. Hos 11:1-9). The Lord’s goal was to “shepherd” and “guide” them with his powerful word and through the demonstration of his presence.
With regards to the Lord’s church which Jesus promised to “build,” it is important that we consider these thoughts in our understanding of the kind of church Jesus was thinking of; as a consequence, it should guide our assessment of how “church” should behave. Individuals gathered together to hear and abide in his teaching, so that in it, they may be shepherded and guided (1 Tim 4:13). Meanwhile, leadership in the church (i.e. elders/shepherds) is to be “able to teach” and “manage” his household, and use these skills as he executes his God’s appointed office (Acts 20:28, 1 Tim 3:1-5). When the church considers this relationship and responsibility and embraces its challenge, we will be taking strong steps to finding a congregation of the Lord – a church of Christ.
We find in the New Testament a consciousness the early Christians held regarding the church. Jesus was to build his church, and after his death, the church began in Jerusalem and spread throughout the Roman world through Judea, Samaria, and to the furthermost extents of known Roman world (Acts 1.8ff). As the church expanded, the apostles and other inspired authors wrote to Christians regarding the ministry of Jesus and concerning Christian living.
Through these documents, important information is related regarding the nature of the church. Anyone searching for a “church” to attend should not settle for any church but should study the New Testament reverently identifying the nature of the church revealed in its pages.
When examining the English word “church” we find that we are not talking about a building, but instead, the emphasis should be placed upon an assembly of people. These individuals are assembled to hear the word of God, and make those Divine words translate into everyday action – everyday living. Only until we hear and practice the Word will we become the church (ekklesia) of Christ.
The King James Version (a.k.a. the A.V.) is quite misleading here, for the Greek text reads pulai hadou – literally, “the gates of hades.” The Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament (ALT) has the following descriptive rendering of the passage,”[the] gates of the realm of the dead [Gr., hades] will not prevail against it” (ATL Matt. 16.18).
Again we disagree with the A.V./KJV-Byzantine tradition in Acts 2.47, where the word “church” (ekklesia) is part of a variant reading of the text. Instead, we agree with others who find that the ending better reads epi to auto, a phrase often used to refer to the “Christian body” in a collective sense (Acts 1.15; 2.1, 47; 1 Cor 11.20; 14.23; Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament , 2d ed. [Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001], 264-65).
Antioch of Syria is not to be confused with the Antioch of Pisidia in Asia Minor. BiblePlaces.com has good images of both Antioch of Syria (link) and of Pisidia (Link).
Technically, there are a few more letters in the New Testament record, but each is embedded in other books. For example, the book of Acts has two letters (a) 15.22-29, and (b) 23.23-30; and, the book of Revelation has seven letters to the church of Asia (Rev. 1-3).
Hugo McCord, The Everlasting Gospel: Plus Genesis, Psalms, and Proverbs, 4th ed. (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), 696. This edition is known also as FHV4.
McCord, The Everlasting Gospel, 696.
Peter T. O’Brien, “Church,” DPHL, 123.
O’Brien, “Church,” 124; TDNT 3:527; BDAG, 303.
O’Brien, “Church,” 124.
Etymologically, ekklesia does suggest that individuals were “called out” from their lifestyles by the Gospel (2 Thess 2:14). There is obviously a separation which occurs (2 Cor 6:17, 1 John 2:15-17). These etymological considerations corroborate with New Testament teaching on the church. However, the word has a richer heritage as is seen in its Old Testament use of the Greek language. These aspects must be appreciated in balance to each other.
Background Bible study is fascinating and is perhaps one of the most important parts of biblical research. Obtaining a “behind-the-scenes” look into the biblical documents will “contribute to a more precise comprehension of the Word of God.” This observation can be said about the shepherd motif found in Scripture. Since it is dangerous to paint half a picture of anyone or anything – especially biblical topics; we stress, then, that this is but a footnote to the beautiful motif of the pastoral profession (i.e. the shepherd) often employed by the biblical authors.
Shepherds in Israel
Shepherding was a great profession in the culture of the Ancient Near East, and so far as it relates to Israel’s history, pastoral work was a constant aspect of nomadic life (cf. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.). Even when they conquered and settled into Palestine, the end of the nomadic life did not stop pastoral work (e.g. David in 1 Sam 16:19; Amos 1:1, 7:14). The widespread awareness of this profession “made motifs of sheep and shepherding apt descriptions of human and divine roles and relationships.”
Notice one Old Testament example. God through Jeremiah pronounces a “woe” upon the leadership of Judah using the pastoral motif:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD.’” (Jer 23:1-2 ESV)
The “shepherds” failed to maintain the pastoral relationship with God’s flock; consequently, the sheep were scattered. Jeremiah, looking to post-exilic times, promises that God will restore the proper care to his flock with faithful shepherds (Jer 23:3-4).
Shepherds in the New Testament
There are several related New Testament words used to the work of shepherding. The noun form is poimein, and refers to a shepherd, herdsmen, or pastor, and hence it is a metaphor describing a guardian-leader. The third translation option probably receives the most attention from among the three, and this is due to its connection with the eldership of the New Testament (Eph 4:11, here teaching-pastors), and its erroneous, but popular, usage in denominational circles.
However, the New Testament uses the term significantly in its normal sense. Jesus refers to himself as “the good shepherd” in John 10:1-18 to distinguish himself from the leaders who had oppressed or neglected the house of Israel. Luke narrates the story of the shepherds, in the field with their flock, who were told of the arrival of the Messiah (2:1-20). Jesus warned his disciples that when he is handed over to the Jews, that they would be scattered like sheep when their shepherd is harmed (Matt 9:36 = Mark 6:34).
But perhaps the most vivid pastoral scenes are of those moments that relate to our relationship with Jesus. The Lord is described as “the Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls (1 Pet 2:25; cf. Heb 13:20), who receives straying sheep as any good shepherd does. Another vivid scene using the shepherd motif is the Day of Judgment when Jesus “will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt 25:32). This is taken from an understanding that sheep and goats were “pastured together” in Palestine, but at certain appropriate times they “require separation.” The figure is given Christian meaning as a metaphor of the judgment upon faithful and non-faithful Christians.
Learning from the Sheep and the Shepherds
There are so many relationship lessons that God has taken from pastoral care, we would do well to reflect upon it more. For example: at the birthing of a new lamb, the shepherd “guards the mother during her helpless moments and picks up the lamb and carries it to the field. For the few days, until it is able to walk, he may carry it in his arms or in the loose folds of his coat.” Could we not make an application from this? The shepherd and the lamb have a wonderfully tender relationship, and we would strengthen our fellowship in taking a lesson from this behavioral motif.
Truly, we can see that a pastoral care for Christians will encourage us to help in the development and care of new converts. It will stimulate us to help heal wounded sheep, and protect them as they are nourished to good health. And more personally, perhaps we would be more receptive to the prodding and care by our shepherds in the church. The “pastoral” mentality is not only for the elders, we would all do well to lead on, or be led, ever so gently (Gen 33:14).
In the Christian age, it is quite common for New Testament students to think of shepherd-pastors as only in terms of the office of a bishop/elder as mentioned in 1 Timothy 3. However, the imagery of a shepherd has a wide application to both describe religious leaders and the effects of their ministries upon their religious constituents, and it also describes how the Lord Jesus and the Father are both presented as providers and keepers of our souls.
May we take from these lessons, practical ways, to reflect a pastoral concern for ourselves, our fellow believers, family, and our friends.
Wayne Jackson, Background Bible Study, revised ed. (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 1999), 1.
Madeleine S. Miller, et al., Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life, 3rd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978), 142.
D. Johnson, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, et al. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), DJG 751.
William E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1986), 2:462, 569.
Despite popular usage among denominations as a term for “minister,” a usage which J.P. Louw and Eugene Nida’s lexicon continues to perpetuate (L&N 53.72), typical passages used to support this idea are misapplied. Specifically, Ephesians 4:11 where there are four groups of leadership types (not five) set forth as recipients of the temporary “gifts” which enable the Christians to obtain maturity (Eph 4:12; 1 Cor 13:10). See J. Jeremias in TDNT 6:485-502.
Jack P. Lewis, Matthew (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1984), 2:137.
J. Patch, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1943), ISBE 4:2764.
This is a reformatted version of the article which originally published in The Words of Truth (Montgomery, AL: 6th Ave church of Christ).
Adultery. Not exactly the warmest of words. For some, it evokes the pain that can only be felt from experiencing a broken home. For others, it is a reminder of what could have been if certain circumstances had presented themselves. There are some who think of this word as an obstacle that was overcome and they are survivors indeed. While yet still, there are others who are ever vigilant of all the steps that lead to this dreaded sin.
And finally, there are some who stand humbled in the rubble around them (a life destroyed), that was brought to fruition through that terrible act of adultery. They enjoyed their brief night in paradise, only to be awoken by the torrents of horror in the morning.
The Word Adultery
It is amazing that some who would set forth the claim that their interests are in teaching the Word of God hold a variety of views as to the nature and meaning of adultery contrary to the biblical data. Without considerable interaction with these distinct points of view, let us press on to consider some of the Old Testament evidence as to the meaning and nature of adultery. How does God represent it in the Hebrew Bible?
But where does the word adultery come from. The actual derivation of the English word for adultery is quite enlightening. It actually derives from combining a number of Latin terms into one:
The word adultery originates not from “adult”, as is commonly thought, but from the Late Latin word for “to alter, corrupt”: adulterare. Adulterarein turn is formed by the combination of ad (“towards”), and alter (“other”), together with the infinitive form are (making it a verb). (Link)
So, in English the word adultery has the idea of one person moving towards another person in order to make a new personal arrangement. Moreover, in some cases the Latin term adulterare carried the meaning of “to pollute” – taking something that is pure, and contaminating it.
When we say that someone has committed adultery, we are simply stating that a person has corrupted his or her marriage by introducing a third party. The marriage has been altered, changed, and polluted. The English word is quite graphic, but since the Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew we would be wise to consult the meaning of this term there.
The Old Testament Term
In the Old Testament, the primary Hebrew word for adultery is na’aph. As with any word, it is part of a grouping of words with similar meanings. Many of these words emphasize a range of meanings; for example, they can take literal or figurative meanings, and even describe those who are married or betrothed who are unfaithful. However, na’aph is the found the majority of the time to state that a person has – as we say – “cheated” on their spouse.
William Wilson notes that na’aph “is confined to adultery in the exclusive sense of the term or fornication by a married person.” James Swanson amplifies the meaning, stating that it refers to a person who has “sexual intercourse with [someone] other than a spouse, as a married or betrothed person, generally, a person of low social status.”
One of the earliest appearances of na’aph in the Old Testament is in the reading of the “10 Commandments” (Exod 20:14). God says transparently, “You shall not commit adultery.” This command is cradled between the “shall not’s” of murder and stealing, which should give us an indication as to the severity of adultery in the eyes of God (Exod 20:13, 15 cf. Lev 20:10).
Clyde Woods makes the observation that in this command, the “sacredness of marriage” is emphasized, and it is this “principle of social purity” that “provides the basis for numerous [other] laws regarding sexual relationships and offences” (cf. Exod 22:19; Lev 18:1-18; Deut 22:13-30). And in this connection, R. Alan Cole finds in Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife the fact that: “For a man to have intercourse with another man’s wife was considered as the heinous sin against God as well as man, long before the law, in patriarchal times (Gen 39:9).”
The holiness of God demands that the matrimonial bed be undefiled by extra-marital affairs (Heb 13:4). Some people defile their marriage by actually sleeping with someone other than their spouse (John 8:4), others have so saturated their minds with “day dreams” of scenarios to have affairs, that if circumstances presented themselves they would do it (Matt 5:28); and yet still, there are those who have slipped on more rings on their one wedding finger than many super bowl champions have on their whole hand – and with little to no effort (John 4:16-19). From the beginning, however, this was not God’s ideal plan for marriage (Matt 19:9 cf. Gen 2:24).
Literal and Figurative Adultery
Na’aph may mean literal adultery, but it also carries figurative, or more precisely, spiritual application as well. Swanson explains: “in some contexts this refers to religious adultery, usually in which Israel is viewed as the unfaithful female spouse to the Lord in a covenantal marriage contract.” Wilhelm Gesenius likewise remarks, “it is applied to the turning aside of Israel from the true God to the worship of idols” (Jer 3:8-9, 5:7, 9:1, 23:14).
Even as Jeremiah writes of the faithless one – the Northern kingdom of Israel:
The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” (Jer 3:6-10).
Judah had not learned the lesson of her sister Israel. The Northern kingdom of Israel’s fixation with idolatry is amply substantiated in the Hebrew Bible, and, in fact, was a foundational aspect of its administration and spirituality (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33). It was this faithless one that committed adultery with stone and tree.
We see then that the literal usages of na’aph enhance the figurative-spiritual uses. The literal and figurative uses share a reciprocal connection; that is to say, they enhance each other. And, this makes perfect sense, for there are very few – if any – words that do not lend themselves to figurative or metaphorical uses.
Examples of Adultery in the Old Testament
Several times in the book of Ezekiel, the spiritual appraisal of Israel is pictured in terms of adultery. Principally, the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel address themselves to this theme. Chapters 15 through 17 explain the doom of Jerusalem by means of allegories and parables. Within this framework, chapter 16 portrays the spiritual infidelity of the Hebrews in the unmistakably graphic picture of marital sexual-infidelity.
Observe some snippets from the chapter that the English Standard Version translators call “The Lord’s Faithless Bride” (Ezek 16:1-58):
“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.” (vs. 8)
“But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore [were unfaithful; ESV footnote #2] because of the renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his.” (vs. 15)
“At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself [“Hebrew spreading your legs”; ESV footnote #1; cf. ASV “opened thy feet […]”] to any passerby and multiplying your whoring.” (vs. 25)
“Adulterous [Hebrew root na’aph] wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (vs. 32)
With great precision, the prophet presents God’s anger and sense of betrayal with the imagery of adultery. As Samuel Schultz and Gary Smith summarize: “in an allegory, Ezekiel compared Judah to a young girl that God cared for and married. But the bride ignored her husband and loved others (foreign customs, idols, her own beauty).”
Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel during the Babylonian captivity, ministered in Jerusalem and abroad. Numerous false prophets declared that this captivity was merely temporary and that God would return them soon. In Jeremiah 29:1-28, the prophet sends a letter from Jerusalem to the captives in Babylon encouraging them in their situation, rebuking those who oppose the truth of God’s punishment upon Judah, and re-enforcing the fact that Judah will remain in Babylon for 70 years. One of the blistering comments rendered to the false prophets is that they were adulterers (Jeremiah 29:20-23).
Jeremiah says that Ahab and Zedekiah, the false prophets, “have done an outrageous thing in Israel, they have committed adultery [Heb. na’aph] with their neighbors’ wives, and they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them” (vs. 23). This language is as transparent as Leviticus 20:10 where Moses writes, “if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
Adultery, literal or figurative, describes the most intimate of interactions. Literally, it refers to actual sexual encounters with someone other than their spouse. Spiritually, it expands upon the literal meaning of adultery and give it a figurative flavor stressing the deep treachery felt by God from his people who give their beauty to another.
Literally, then, adultery is sexual activity between a married person and a person who is not their spouse. Spiritually, then, adultery is spiritual and moral activity contrary to God’s teaching. While Old Testament and the New Testament are uniform in their presentation of adultery, space has been given to a brief investigation of the concept in the Old Testament. The Old Testament and New Testament are two testimonies that share the same conception of adultery, a behavior that Russell describes as, a “special and aggravated case of fornication.”
This concept has not been altered or distorted through the passing of time; consequently, we have no right to redefine it in modern times, contemporary times, or in any subsequent generation to come, for God’s truth endures to all generations (Psa 100:5). He means what he says. Heaven help us to keep it secure and unaltered in our minds!
James Swanson, “Na’aph,” Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament), 2d ed., electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
William Wilson, Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 6.
Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages.
Clyde M. Woods, Genesis-Exodus (Henderson, TN: Woods, 1972), 179.
R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), 160.
Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages.
Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, electronic ed. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2003), 525.
Emmet Russell observes this exact point when he writes, “the figurative use enhances the literal sense, emphasizing the divine institution and nature of marriage” (Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill C. Tenney [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1967], 17).